Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, April 23, 2001

The ladies of Na Hula O Kaohikukapulani (Kapu
Kinimaka-Alquiza, Hanapepe, Kauai) perform at
the 38th annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.

Heritage of hula

The spirit of ohana pervades
Merrie Monarch participants

List of winners

By Tim Ryan

Hilo >> In any great event there are moments that seem to best define the significance of what is happening. Some are magnificent instances impossible to miss; others are subtle, requiring a keen eye and an open heart.

The just-concluded 38th Merrie Monarch Festival was about both.

It would be a disservice to describe the annual event at rustic Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium as being just about hula, just a competition, just a big Hawaiian party or just a Hilo get-together. Open your eyes and you see far more.

After three days of the finest hula dancing on one stage in the world with some 15,000 spectators packing the venue, there was festival matriarch "Auntie" Dottie Thompson, who has been running the show for more than 30 years, sitting stage-side with tears welling in her 79-year-old eyes over something even she had not expected. And all in the waning moments of the event.

The spirited men of Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula
(Chinky Mahoe, Kailua, Oahu) dance during
the 'auana portion of the competition.

Following the introduction onstage of all the kumu hula whose halau participated, their alaka'i, or assistant teachers, were invited on stage to dance for the crowd, their students, their kumu.

The normally nonplused Thompson, who a moment before was pulling gifts out of cardboard boxes for the kumu, smiled with total joy, hands held over her mouth, stunned by this unexpected moment.

"Oh yes, yes," she said, watching the future kumu share the stage in ohana, not competition. "This is what Merrie Monarch is about; it is why we are all here: to share the dance, to share aloha, to be one."

Repeated often by halau and their kumu is the statement that Merrie Monarch is not about who win or who loses. It's about sharing and learning.

You might not see that as an audience member, but take a walk outside and backstage, and it eventually sinks in. Many halau spend their time with the group in makeshift dressing rooms, not watching what is going on onstage, not even watching television coverage.

"(Winning is) icing on the cake for us. After a year of performing in other events, usually separately, we can be together as one in this," said Cindy Kealoha, 41, who has been dancing in brother Glenn Vasconcellos' Hilo-based Halau O Ke Anuenue in 20 Merrie Monarch festivals.

Exuberant in their success at the Merrie Monarch
Festival were, from left, Uilani Estarillo, Keala Lee,
Kasey Reyes and Tiffany Reyes-Dearson of Hula
Halau O Kamuela (Waimanalo-Kalihi). The halau
won first place overall and in the women's kahiko
and 'auana competitions.

Like so many other festival veterans, Kealoha recalled a Merrie Monarch moment eight years ago when her 13-year-old daughter, Ranell, shared the stage with her.

"When I gave birth to her, I never thought I would still be dancing at the same time she would be -- and especially at Merrie Monarch," Kealoha said. "It's a memory I always remember."

Miss Aloha Hula winner Natasha K. Oda, a member of Johnny Lum Ho's Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, admitted to being excited about the last night's event, emphasizing that Merrie Monarch for her halau was "totally stress free."

"The process of getting here is more important than the destination," she said. "It's about ... having fun. A win or a not-win doesn't determine how great you performed."

Most of the halau spend their time before going onstage pressing costumes, fixing hula skirts, helping one another apply makeup, teasing, telling jokes, eating and socializing.

"I'm happy to be back dancing with the people I grew up with," said Hilo High School graduate Kasie Kaleohana, 21, who now attends the University of Hawaii-Manoa. She has been dancing in Lum Ho's halau for 17 years, and this was her fourth Merrie Monarch.

Johnny Lum Ho shared a farewell embrace as he
left the Merrie Monarch competition. His student,
Natasha Oda, won the title of Miss Aloha Hula.

"It's not at all about the competition," she said. "We do the best we can for ourselves and our kumu.

"The most satisfying part for me is when you make the crowd happy. ... It really feels good when you hear the whole stadium cheering. It's better to hear the crowd judging you than the judges. That makes us feel like winners."

About 100 feet from the stage in the darkness behind the bleachers, Dan Fernandez, 28, of Honolulu, stood holding his sleeping 6-month-old daughter, Kekoa, catching glimpses of the dancers through people's dangling legs.

"I always wanted to come to Merrie Monarch but never had the chance," Thompson said. "I saw it on TV but not the same thing. To be here is to really understand so much about sharing the Hawaiian culture and seeing how people live it.

"I'm not Hawaiian, but you don't not have to be to understand what this means for everyone."

Little has changed at Merrie Monarch in decades. Backstage dressing rooms are too small and not plentiful enough to accommodate all the halau, so many do not arrive at the stadium until just before their performances. Dozens of portable toilets have to be set up; during intermission and other breaks in the dancing, men's toilets are used by women, with guards standing outside to ensure privacy.

As for the business of Merrie Monarch, again it was a grand slam for organizers and Hilo. All competition tickets were sold out months ago; souvenir programs were sold out Friday night, and most T-shirts by 8 p.m. Saturday.

Hilo hotels were booked weeks ago, restaurants were packed, and even the Naniloa Hotel by the end of Saturday's competition was out of Hawaiian food.

Vasconcellos' halau performed at their first Merrie Monarch in 1977. He continues to learn more about Hawaiian culture with each festival.

"I learn and the girls learn something new about the costumes and dance," said Vasconcellos, 52.

Kealoha said Merrie Monarch teaches dancers that they can never be the best, that there is always something to learn and always someone better.

"You learn humility," she said.

Despite pledges of humility, the top winners were delighted.

Lum Ho, who spent the final day of competition teaching some Japanese women hula in his Hilo studio, was exuberant at taking first in men's 'auana, third in men's overall, fourth in women's 'auana and fourth in men's kahiko.

"Our performances went the way they were supposed to go; the dancers did the dances and the chants the way they were taught," said Lum Ho.

The festival's overall winner, Hula Halau O Kamuela of Waimanalo/Kalihi, with kumu Paleka Leina'ala Mattos and Kunewa Mook, took first place in women's kahiko and 'auana.

"I'm overwhelmed and honored," said Mattos, who has won the overall trophy three times and the women's division three years in a row.

The halau's formula, Mattos said, is having "good girls who dance that you train from the very beginning."

This is the halau's 18th year at Merrie Monarch.

"It is a competition, so honestly, to win means you are doing good work," she said. "We'll be back next year."

Chinky Mahoe's Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula of Kailua took first in the men's kahiko, second in 'auana, fifth in the women's 'auana and first in men's overall.

Mahoe said this year's training was "a lot of work" because of so many new students.

"It was worth it to give back to God the talent he gave all of us," Mahoe said.

The secret is being focused on "our spirituality, giving to God first our talents before we gave to the judges and audience," Mahoe said.

Mahoe's halau celebrated by eating Hawaiian food, then attending church services yesterday morning before also returning to Oahu.

And Lum Ho? He visited a bar near his home to throw darts. "I'm not much for partying," he said.

Halau O Kamuela
is overall winner

Here is the complete list of Merrie Monarch Festival winners:


Hula Halau O Kamuela (Paleka Leina'ala Mattos and Kunewa Mook), Honolulu; 1,209 points

Kane overall

1. Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula (Chinky Mahoe), Kailua; 1,145 points
2. Halau O Na Pua Kukui (Ed Collier), Honolulu; 1,128 points
3. Halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua (Johnny Lum Ho), Hilo; 1,126 points

Wahine Overall

1. Hula Halau O Kamuela; 1,209 points
2. Halau Hula Olana (Howard and Olana Ai), Aiea; 1,178 points (tiebreaker 1,603)
3. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa 'O Laka (Aloha Dalire), Kaneohe; 1,178 points (1,596 tiebreaker)

Hula Kahiko Kane

1. Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula; 571 points
2. Halau O Na Pua Kukui; 567 points
3. Ka Pa Hula O Kamehameha (Holoua Stender), Honolulu; 559 points
4. Halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua; 539 points

Hula Kahiko Wahine

1. Hula Halau O Kamuela; 599 points
2. Na Hula 'O Kaohikukapulani (Kapu Kinimaka-Alquiza), Hanapepe; 591 points
3. Ka Pa Hula O Kamehameha; 577 points (tiebreaker 791)
4. Halau Hula Olana; 577 points (tiebreaker 787)
5. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa; 577 points (781 tiebreaker)

Hula 'auana Kane

1. Halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua; 587 points
2. Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula; 574 points
3. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa 'O Laka; 563 points
4. Ka Pa Hula O Kamehameha; 561 points (778 tiebreaker)

Hula 'auana Wahine

1. Hula Halau O Kamuela; 610 points
2. Halau Hula Olana; 601 points (tiebreaker 816)
3. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa 'O Laka; 601 points (tiebreaker 815)
4. Halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua; 597 points
5. Halau Hula 'O Kawaili'ula; 595 points

Miss Aloha Hula

1. Natasha Oda, Halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua; 1,123 points
2. Snowbird Bento, Ka Pa Hula O Kamehameha; 1,122 points*
3. Kahikina de Silva, Halau Mohala 'Ilima (Mapuana de Silva), Kailua;1,106 points
4. Noelle Shiroma, Halau Hula Olana; 1,092 points
5. Kamealoha Elaban-Hall, Puka'ikapuaokalani, Waimanalo (Ellen Castillo); 1,023 points

* Hawaiian language award winner

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